When The Rabbis Tell You To Eat Treife
This past Shabbos, one of my daughters asked me why we have to listen to Chazal on everything - surely they could be mistaken? Just because they're the establishment, the majority, who says that they're correct?
It's an important question, and the answer has ramifications far beyond the question - in fact, it's extremely relevant to current events.
The Torah describes the case of the zaken mamre, the rebellious elder who is punished for going against the ruling of the rest of the Sanhedrin. One might presume that this is because even if they appear to be mistaken, they are actually always correct, due to their being the majority of Sages, or due to their receiving divine assistance. But Chasam Sofer says otherwise.
Chasam Sofer raises, and then rejects, the idea that the Sanhedrin receive divine assistance to ensure that they are never mistaken (despite the fact that this was proposed by no less a figure than Ramban). His reason for rejecting it is that, as seen in the Talmudic story of the Achnai oven, no form of divine intervention is permitted in the halachic process — “[The Torah] is not in Heaven.” The Sanhedrin are human beings, and they are thus, by definition, fallible. Chasam Sofer concludes that one is obligated to accept that the Sanhedrin can make mistakes. He further points out that the zaken mamre may be wiser than all the rest of the Sanhedrin, and may even have the majority of non-Sanhedrin scholars on his side. Chasam Sofer stresses that the zaken mamre may even be correct! He gives the powerful example of a lone judge on the Sanhedrin who is of the view that a certain food is not kosher, and is actually correct that it is treife food — yet if the rest of the Sanhedrin rules that it is kosher, he must not refuse to eat it!
Yet this zaken mamre - a great Torah scholar who is the voice of the silent majority, who may even be the one voice who is actually getting the halacha correct, is nevertheless liable for the death penalty for the "crime" of not abandoning the truth and following the Sanhedrin's ruling. Why?
The reason is simple, yet profound.
It is crucial to maintain a system of authority, because without it, you have anarchy.
If one person who knows better is allowed to disobey the courts, then everyone who believes that they know better than the courts will do what they think is correct. And then the courts and the legal system lose all authority. Which means that society will inevitably fall apart. Gone. Finished. Kaput. And the importance of a single truth does not remotely justify destroying everything.
That's why, in the famous story of the Achnai oven, when even a Divine voice rings out that R. Eliezer is correct, his ruling is nevertheless ignored in favor of the majority. The ruling of the majority must be followed not because they are necessarily correct - after all, in this case God Himself said that they were wrong! Rather, it must be followed due to the much greater importance of upholding the system of authority and preventing anarchy. Better for the system to occasionally get it wrong than for the entire society to collapse into chaos because everyone does what they think is right.
Stop and think about this for a few moments. This member of the Sanhedrin - this great man who has done so much for the Jewish People, who is upset that they are getting the halacha wrong and wants to make them great again, this brave man who goes against the mainstream and speaks truth to power, who is speaking the truth - is liable for the death penalty. Because by focusing on the narrow issue of his own certainty of having arrived at the truth, he has ignored the tremendous harm that he is doing to the very fabric of society. If you give license to disregard the system when you believe yourself justified, they you ruin the system. And if you ruin the system, the central body of authority, then society falls apart. An act which initially appears righteous can be devastatingly harmful and must be treated accordingly.
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